Mystical Experience

Once Albert Einstein was asked what he thought the most important question was. “Is the universe a friendly place?” he answered.

More commonly this question may be one or more of these: “Is there really something out there? What are we to make of this strange planet, this world of happiness and sorrows, polarities and paradox?” Or in Buddhist training circles, maybe “What am I if not the self I have thought?”

These are among the mysteries, and all of the world’s religions attempt to address them. The word mystery is related to the word mystical and derived from the ancient Greek word for close-mouthed, as in “lips that are sealed”.  In its most powerful form, mystical experience refers to an intense sweeping awareness of the whole nature of things and our selves an inseparable part of it all. This level of experience is called by various names, some depending upon one’s culture. Among those names are the numinous, higher consciousness, cosmic consciousness, and satori. In a few moments I’ll say a few words about the characteristics and other aspects of these experiences. What they are not generally seen to include is also interesting. God is not necessary to mysticism though many mystics describe their experience in terms of a relationship to God or Allah or Brahman. Buddha, however, is an example of a mystic who did not. Also, mystical experiences are not vague phenomena, but rather, compelling encounters of extraordinary clarity and significance to those who have had them.

What Do We Know of Mystical Experience in General?

As Mark Ryan shared here in a dharma talk last year (and later presented in lectures at the Houston Jung Center), The Varieties of Religious Experience was written and first delivered as lectures by William James at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902.  James’ book, The Varieties as it is commonly called, remains the classic text in the psychology of religion more than 100 years later. James took an interdisciplinary approach to understanding religion and science. He sought to reconcile and validate the two by applying rigorous scientific inquiry into the study of religious states. He argued that at the very heart of religion is a personal, inner experience of the divine and that this personal communion is the primordial thing in all religions. He was not a fan of most religious creeds and theories. His book is essentially a text of the first hand accounts of what he described as the inner experiences of great-souled persons. Their spiritual lives exhibited enormous diversities. Among those great-souled persons whose lives and religious experiences James studied were Emerson, Whitman, Mohammed, Christ, Luther and Buddha. Despite the varieties of their experiences, James identified through them the core elements of religious/mystical experience. First, he stated, there is an unseen order, beyond the direct perception of our senses, that is superior to the order that we know directly; and secondly, the supreme good of human life is to put ourselves in harmony with that unseen, superior order.

What are the characteristics of and major triggers for direct religious and mystical experiences? James delineated these characteristics of mystical experience based upon the reports of those whose lives he surveyed: the experiences are ineffable, or cannot be imparted to another and must be experienced directly to be understood. They are noetic or revelatory (one feels he or she has learned something profound). They are transitory, rarely lasting more than 30-60 minutes and often very much less. They are characterized by a feeling of passivity, as if experience is flowing over one as a wave might flow over the shore. They have the power to change one’s life, staying with one as a living memory. They impart a sense of oneness. Often, they impart a consciousness of the life and order of the universe and a sense of immortality, not a conviction that one WILL have eternal life, but the consciousness that one has it ALREADY. These experiences vary in intensity.

Though mystical experiences may be triggered by a variety of circumstances, there appear to be four major triggers (accounting for a high percentage of all those reported), according to the survey of Sir Alister Hardy who surveyed over 3000 people who claimed to have had such spontaneous experiences: Depression/despair; prayer/meditation; natural beauty; and participation in religious worship (perhaps more commonly of the ecstatic variety).

For those who may be open to them, what practices or situations appear to invite mystical experiences? Practices of presence seem to be key. These may include prayer, meditation, contemplation and others, but underlying the practice is, using the words of Richard Rohr, “calm, ego-less seeing”.  The result of this type of seeing, Rohr states, is moving from “mere belief or belonging systems to actual inner experience”.

And, now, although it truly was ineffable, I would like to try to share with you my own mystical experience.

My Mystical or Numinous Experience

My experience occurred more than 14 years ago (August 1999) as I sat with my mother, who lay close to death following a fairly extended period of stressful medical intervention.

First a little background that may or may not be relevant: I had had a complicated relationship with my mother for many years. We were dissimilar in many ways. We’d had our “moments” over the years, had made adjustments, found forgiveness for wounds exchanged, and finally forged a delicate but loving balance. Though complex, the bond between us was always intense.

As she lay dying in a room at MD Anderson Hospital in August 1999, I sat gazing at her from across the room. I had been as distressed as one human can be trying to hold together so many disparate situations during the weeks she had been in the protected environment at Anderson. She had been undergoing a radical treatment that was her only (and very small) hope to extend her life. I had felt a powerful and personal responsibility for her well-being, if not her survival, that was all consuming. I also felt profound anguish and anger that our family had never been forewarned of the potential need to have a corps of qualified white blood cell donors “on call” until the need for them was immediate and urgent. But, I had managed to find such people, as if through a miracle. The pressure and effort had been intense.

All of that was in the past now. My mother had had a stroke while being treated in the protected environment and was moved into the spacious, comfortable room where I sat. She was mostly non-responsive, close to death. My sister moved about somewhere in the background. In the course of perhaps minutes, I experienced the following:

The room filled with a glittering golden light that I felt more than saw. The message “All is well and is as it should be” entered my being and consciousness with forceful certainty, felt throughout me rather than heard. I became one with everything and with the eternal. I saw that she and each of us are held for eternity in unity and in a net of Absolute Love.

The golden moment then passed. All was the same around me, but not within me. I felt a vague “centeredness” I had not felt before. I was still deeply saddened by the knowledge that my mother would soon be dead, but this was balanced by a complete understanding that all was ultimately well with her and with the universe.

I did not and could not describe this experience for several years to another human. As my sister and I left the room that day and managed the details two days later of our mother’s death, I could say nothing of these moments. A close friend confided to me several weeks later that she felt that something had shifted in me. I could neither confirm nor deny this because I had no words for the event, just that I felt quite different since my mother’s death.

It took several months for me to even realize within myself that I, a “non-religious but spiritual” person, had had a numinous or religious experience that revealed to me briefly Reality or the true nature of things. I came to believe later still that I had unexpectedly found an opening through deep pain and despair into the beauty and love that underlies all. I saw and began to feel that this had deepened me in a lasting way from the person I had been previously.

And Later-Still Effects?

Despite the above insights and glimpses, I am infrequently able to hold the knowledge gained from my experience fully in my awareness.  In other words, I still grasp onto the illusion of control and tighten into anxious worry, busyness and excessive planning as though this event had never happened to me.

But, I have also been left with a deep trust that I can continue to meet my life with an open heart if I remain present to all that it is. That trust seems to deepen over time and served me well when my father died earlier this year. And, I can truly answer Einstein’s question affirmatively for myself: The universe IS a friendly place.

Experiences like preparing for this talk help me to see from a new perspective how my understanding of my own mystical experience has evolved over time. I haven’t changed the wording of my account from what I first wrote several years after it happened. Assigning words to it at all and trying to understand and interpret it seem like unskillful behaviors. If I were to modify the wording though, I might now write that I see that deep suffering triggered my experience. As a result of my learnings in this group, I might state that after weeks of intense grasping, attachment and the illusion that I could, with enough effort, affect my mother’s health outcome, I finally had no choice but to detach from all hope and illusion…. and that opened me to a profound but painful presence.

I have spent much of the last 14 years hoping for another such experience. I came closer to that goal while on retreat at the Margaret Austin Center last October. During a rest or break period, I carried my yoga mat to the far reaches of a pasture and rested on the ground where miniature blue butterflies flew from one tiny white flower to another. Below them, tiny ants carried pieces of leaves. I became lost in their worlds, worlds I could not see or appreciate while standing or walking, only by being still and close to the ground.

This “seeing” led me to that sense of oneness again, and I had a little glimpse into the “nature of things”, including how humanity is no more than a very small and impermanent part of the whole. I could not easily put into words what I experienced then either, except that it felt like spaciousness and real presence. Along with the wonder, I also felt sadness- it was suddenly and momentarily crystal-clear to me that what stands between me and more frequent experience of this type is “simply” busyness, planning, too many words and too much thinking.

As we have seen, meditation is both a trigger for and a practice that invites mystical experience. Natural beauty is another trigger for mystical experience, while calm, egoless seeing also invites such experience. All of these come together more easily on silent retreats in beautiful natural settings than in the busyness of daily urban life. By connecting research findings with my own retreat experience, I am newly committed to the intention to meditate more consistently, take more silent retreats and spend more time in the natural beauty available to me.